The economy is slowly getting better, but Colorado’s unemployment rate is still more than double what it was before the recession.  That has put tremendous pressure on the state’s unemployment insurance system.  Add to that an emphasis on reducing false payments, which has bogged things down further.  Colorado Public Radio’s Ben Markus reports it is now taking months for the jobless to receive benefits.

Reporter Ben Markus: Kelsey Baker says her garden is probably one of the nicest in her Northeast Denver neighborhood.  She’s has a lot more time to tend to it now that she’s unemployed.

Kelsey Baker: There’s even a sign over there on the fence says, ‘sanctuary.’ This is is where I come out to get away from the unemployment crap

Reporter: The unemployment crap she’s referring to is a four month struggle to get unemployment benefits from the state. It had been more than 10 years since she last had to ask for help.  And things have changed, like she now can file online.

Baker: That was the easy part, and that was the end of the easy part. 

Reporter: Among other things, she was flagged for filling out paperwork about her pension incorrectly -- which she says was confusing.  Then the state mistakenly classified her as leaving her last job because of a medical condition -- which requires a whole other set of paperwork.  And good luck trying to contact someone about it. 

Baker: As far as contacting somebody on the phone, I have found that impossible. I have not once gotten ahold of an individual at the Colorado Unemployment Bureau when I have dialed the unemployment number. Not a single time.

Reporter: She’s had to get up early to stand in long line at 7 in the morning to talk to someone in person. Across town, sitting at her kitchen table Hollianne Hall says she’s had a similar experience.  She recently called more than a hundred times in a day -- and sat on hold for hours.  After she finally got ahold of someone, they told her it would take at least 2 months to review her claim.

Hollianne Hall: I felt my stomach just drop, I go, ‘how is this even acceptable? Because until we find another job, which could take awhile these days how are we supposed to pay our bills and what are we supposed to do for food.’ And she said, ‘well, don’t you have anybody, relatives or anything. And I’m like, ‘well, no, and I can’t depend on them, I mean this is kind of what this unemployment insurance is for.’

Reporter: Still waiting for benefits, she’s had to turn to food stamps -- and she’s being evicted from her apartment. For its part the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment says taking an average of two months to review a claim isn’t the norm. 

Cher Haavind: It’s been as high as that at times. 

Reporter: Cher Haavind is the Department’s spokesperson, she says it’s been that high now since February.  It should take about a month to review the claims.

Haavind: The reality is, we have not seen claims levels really decrease even though things are improving in the economy, people are still in need of those benefits.

Reporter: She says they’re still handling double the usual unemployment workload.  And that’s a lot of applications to process.  When Bill Ritter was governor -- he ordered the Department to get claims out the door quickly.  But now they have a competing order.

Haavind: We have been directed by the US Department of Labor to focus on the quality of our payments. 

Reporter: The quality - that means, make sure people are getting the amount due to them, but no more.  Governor John Hickenlooper has also emphasised quality.  It’s worked ... the state has reduced overpayment and false claims … saving an estimated 30 million dollars.  But it’s slowed everything down.

Haavind: At the same time we understand that people need these benefits, and it’s a challenge.

Reporter: And it’s not surprising to her that people have had trouble getting through to a real person when they call -- Haavind says they’ve moved staff off the phones to help review claims.

Haavind: The reality is, we can only get to so many calls each day.

Reporter: Even more staff is on the way to help with the workload … both through new hires and division reorganization.  Haavind hopes that will reduce the backlog by the end of July, bringing the wait times for new benefits to the federal standard of 4 to 6 weeks. But that doesn’t help people who have already waited months to get their checks.  Kelsey Baker finally got hers after 4 months because she contacted her state house representative who intervened and got her the benefits.

Baker: This would be very funny, if it weren’t so serious.  But this is my livelihood at stake, my mortgage, my car payment.

Reporter: She’s relieved to get the help -- but might not need it for long.  With three job interviews scheduled she’s optimistic she’ll soon be working again.

[Photo by Flickr user Darren Hester]